If, like me, you use your children’s reading experiences to enhance their writing, there is no better book to showcase good description than Tuck Everlasting. Natalie Babbit tells her tale of a family who accidentally drank from a spring of eternal youth with such eloquence that the story seems to float along on a dry, August wind.
Which is just what she intends. Writing with intention is one of the best lessons a student can learn, and Tuck Everlasting is one of the best books to illustrate the idea. Let me give you an example from the prologue:
The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autum, but the first week of Autumn is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.
Wow. Sure, we’ve felt that in the first week of August, even noticed it, but how many of us could describe it so vividly in so few words? I am fascinated by the idea of that week being like the car poised at the top of the Ferris wheel, and the Littles and I discussed it for, oh, about twenty minutes. It is a rare pleasure for an author to ensconce you so deeply in her setting so quickly. Just reading and discussing that description can help your student imagine interesting ways to describe things in his own work. Here’s another, from chapter 9.
The pastures, fields, and scrubby groves they crossed were vigorous with bees, and crickets leapt before them as if each step released a spring and flung them up like pebbles. But everything else was motionless, dry as a biscuit, on the brink of burning, hoarding final reservoirs of sap, trying to hold out until the rain had returned.
Can’t you just hear the grass crunching underfoot? See the swarms of gnats hovering at eye level? This is what we want to teach our students–to evoke even more images by writing about just a few. There are lots of way to teach descriptive writing, including lessons on metaphors and similes, using specific, strong words, and, of course, showing and not telling. But nothing can teach good description better than seeing it in action.
There’s a reason Tuck Everlasting is just as popular today as it was forty years ago. The idea of living forever is appealing but, as Babbit demonstrates, comes at a price. The novel helps children understand a little about death and why it is necessary and even about how life should be lived to the fullest because the reality is we have a limited time on Earth. Guided reading has afforded us with so many conversations that I’m kind of feeling like this is the best book we’ll read this year. The real reason it’s still so popular and intriguing is that it is so well-written. The words are beautiful. It’s as though Babbit took each individual word, stuck it in her mouth, sucked on it, and savored it before putting it to the page. By doing so, she tells part of the story without words–she puts it in our minds more even than a film would.
If you have a child who struggles writing descriptions, read Tuck Everlasting with her. Pause every time your heart wells up (and it will) with the amazing feelings evoked by Babbit’s descriptions. Discuss what she means by her words, how it makes you feel, and see if your student can come up with other colorful ways to phrase the description. I promise you, it will help.
And, heck, even if I’m wrong, no one should trade the reading of this invaluable book for watching it on film or stage. There is pure joy in the pages, in the author’s love of language, that just doesn’t translate.